Harvard Business School Working Knowledg e Archive

The Best Practices of Technology Brokers

8/4/2003
Companies that are best at developing out-of-the-box thinking on new products employ four successful work practices. An excerpt from the new book, How Breakthroughs Happen.

Technology brokers have discovered how to bridge the disparate worlds they move among outside their boundaries, and how to build new ventures from the technologies and people they come across. In the process, they have developed four intertwined work practices that help them do this: capturing good ideas, keeping ideas alive, imagining new uses for old ideas, and putting promising concepts to the test. Although the markets and settings of different brokers are diverse, their approaches are not. Indeed, the four intertwined processes are remarkably alike across companies and industries.

Capturing good ideas
The first step is to bring in promising ideas. Because technology brokers span multiple markets, industries, and geographic locations, they keep seeing proven technologies, products, business practices, and business models. Brokers recognize that these old ideas are their main source of raw material for new ideas, even when they are not sure how an old idea might help in the future. When brokers come across a promising idea, they don't just file it away. They play with it in their minds—and when possible with their hands—to figure out how and why it works, to learn what is good and bad about it, and to start spinning fantasies about new ways to use it.

To invent, you need a good imagination and a pile of junk.
—Thomas Edison

Designers at IDEO, for example, seem obsessed with learning about materials and products they have no immediate use for. At lunch one day, Professor Robert Sutton and I watched two engineers take apart the napkin container to look at the springs inside. Another time, we brought a new digital camera to a brainstorming session, and the meeting was delayed for ten minutes while engineers took apart our new toy to see how it was designed and manufactured. IDEO designers visit the local Palo Alto hardware store to see new products and remind themselves of old ideas, and they take field trips to places such as the Barbie Hall of Fame, an airplane junkyard, and a competition where custom-built robots fight to the death.

Technology brokers capture even more ideas from doing focused work on specific problems, especially when studying new industries or visiting new locations. More than 100 years ago, Thomas Edison's instructions about how to start a new project were as follows: "First, study the present construction. Second, ask for all past experiences ... study and read everything you can on the subject." 1 Today, firms like IDEO and Design Continuum do pretty much the same thing when they're trying to come up with new designs. They collect related products and writings on those products, and—perhaps most important—they observe users. When Design Continuum was hired to improve the tools and techniques used in knee surgery, its engineers went to a convention for surgeons, where they had the doctors re-create the surgical process in a way that allowed the engineers to watch and talk with users. One of the engineers described the scene:

We wanted to observe the procedures, so we had a cadaver lab, which was actually in a swank hotel. One room was the lecture room and the other held twelve cadavers. They had the room chilled down to 50 degrees, had the cadavers in there and had a guard twenty-four hours a day making sure nobody accidentally walked in. We just wanted to see how doctors used the tools, the little blocks and stuff they use for doing the procedures.

The result? Designers noticed that surgeons had developed elaborate habits to make up for what one engineer described as the "missing third arm"; this inspired them to develop a new surgical tool that allowed doctors to hold, rotate, and operate on the kneecap.

Similarly, when Design Continuum was asked to develop an innovative kitchen faucet for a client that had been producing products in the industry for decades, it undertook a massive benchmarking exercise in order to learn not just about kitchen faucet valves, but also about valves used in automobiles, medical products, and toys. The final design, drawing on many of those ideas, was for a pullout faucet that housed an integrated filter and circuitry to track filter life. The faucet delighted the client, whose engineers had assumed, after many years in the business, that they knew everything there was to know about valves.

All of this curiosity means that technology brokers create massive collections of ideas. Some will lead to innovations; some will not. The important thing is that they're there. Edison once said, "To invent, you need a good imagination and a pile of junk." 2

Keeping ideas alive
The second step, keeping ideas alive, is crucial because ideas can't be used if they are forgotten. Cognitive psychologists have shown that the biggest hurdle to solving problems often isn't ignorance, it's that people can't put their fingers on the necessary information at the right time even if they've already learned it. Organizational memories are even tougher to maintain. Companies lose what they learn when people leave. Geographic distance, political squabbles, internal competition, and bad incentive systems may hinder the spread of ideas.

The product design firms we studied were particularly good at keeping ideas alive, in part because much of each company's stockpile of ideas is embedded in objects that designers can look at, touch, and play with (it's easier to search through an actual junk pile than a virtual one). IDEO has made a science of accumulating junk. Many designers put plastic parts, toys, prototypes, drawings, and sketches on display in their offices. One engineer, Dennis Boyle, has an amazingly eclectic assortment of items that he constantly talks about and brings to brainstorming meetings to inspire new designs. It includes twenty-three battery-powered toy cars and robots, thirteen plastic hotel keys collected during trips, a flashlight that goes on when the handle is squeezed, an industrial pump, eleven prototypes of a portable computer, fourteen prototypes of a computer docking station, six computers in various stages of disassembly, fifteen binders from past projects, a pile of disk drives, a collection of toothpaste tubes, a toy football with wings, a pair of ski goggles he designed, a Frisbee that flies under water, and dozens of other products and parts. He portrays this collection as "a congealed process—three-dimensional snapshots of the ideas from previous projects"

Building on such collections, IDEO designers have amassed a shared collection of over 400 materials and products in what they call the Tech Box, a set of filing cabinets in each of IDEO's locales that houses many of the cool mechanical and electrical gizmos, ideas, artifacts, and materials that designers run across in their projects: tiny batteries, switches, glow-in-the dark fabric, flexible circuit boards, electric motors, piezoelectric speakers and lights, holographic candy, flexible and resilient hinges, a metal-plated walnut, vacuum-sealed copper pipes with freon inside, a widget from the bottom of a Guinness can that gives the beer a foamy head when you open it, plywood tubes, and flip-flops from Hawaii. It began as part of Dennis Boyle's collection of interesting things, but it became a status game as people in his studio competed to contribute cool new stuff. Every time someone sees something that looks like it might be a valuable solution later on, he or she drops it off at the Tech Box and it gets logged, put on a Web site, and sent to similar Tech Boxes at all the different offices. When a problem comes up in a new project, designers can grab what looks related from the Tech Box and try to find a useful connection.

The most respected people at IDEO are part pack rat, part librarian, and part Good Samaritan.
—Andrew Hargadon

Just as Dennis Boyle's "knowledge management system" would be useless if he didn't constantly talk about the items and discuss how they might be used, the memories in the Tech Boxes would eventually die if designers didn't constantly look at the stuff, play with it, and use it in their work. Each Tech Box is now maintained by a local curator, and each piece is documented on IDEO's intranet. Designers can find out what each product or material is and who knows most about it inside and outside IDEO. Engineer Christine Kurjan, head curator of IDEO's Tech Boxes, hosts a regular conference call with the local curators in which they talk about new additions and the uses to which items are being put in new projects.

It's harder to keep ideas alive when they're not embedded in tangible objects. The people who design knowledge management systems for large consulting firms like Accenture and McKinsey originally thought that lists of best practices, reports, and PowerPoint presentations would be sufficient. They assumed that consultants would be able to solve problems just by reading through databases. But even at these firms, consultants quickly found that the systems are most useful as annotated Yellow Pages, helping them find out who to talk to about how the knowledge was really used and might be used again. Perceiving a need to link consultants together rather than refer them to stored information, McKinsey created its Rapid Response Team, which promises to link—within twenty-four hours—any consultant facing a problem to others who might have useful knowledge. The team accomplishes this feat largely by knowing who knows what at McKinsey.

Spreading information about who knows what is a powerful way to keep ideas alive. Edison was renowned for his ability to remember how old ideas were used and by whom. The most respected people at IDEO are part pack rat (because they have great private collections of stuff), part librarian (because they know who knows what), and part Good Samaritan (because they go out of their way to share what they know and to help others).

Imagining new uses for old ideas
The third set of work practices occurs when people recognize new uses for the ideas they've captured and kept alive. Often those applications are blindingly simple. When Edison's inventors were developing the lightbulb, bulbs kept falling out of their fixtures. One day, a technician wondered whether the threaded cap that could be screwed down so tightly on a kerosene bottle would hold lightbulbs in their sockets. They tried it, it worked, and the design hasn't changed since. Old ideas can become powerful solutions to new problems if brokers are skilled at seeing such analogies.

Design Continuum engineers used analogical thinking to develop the pulsed lavage, the medical product for cleansing wounds with a flow of saline solution described in Chapter 4. In thinking about pulsed lavage, the engineers saw connections to battery-powered squirt guns. Once they'd seen these similarities—similarities that would not have occurred to most observers—the engineers could incorporate the squirt gun's inexpensive electric pump and battery into a successful design for a new medical product.

An effective technology broker develops creative answers to hard problems because people within the organization talk a lot about their work and about who might help them do it better. Company-wide gatherings, formal brainstorming sessions, and informal hallway conversations are just some of the venues where people share their problems and solutions. Gian Zaccai, the CEO of Design Continuum, recognized the power of bringing people together face to face:

You pick two people, with different experiences and maybe even different training, and put them together and you've got that kind of a synergy, an exchange of ideas. Because whatever this person says will provoke a hundred different ideas in this other one and a hundred different memories.3

Many brokers also use a physical layout that enables (perhaps forces is a better word) such interaction. At the Menlo Park laboratory in New Jersey, Edison's muckers worked in a single large room: As one put it, "we were all interested in what we were doing and what the others were doing;" 4 Bill Gross put his Internet start-up factory, Idealab!, in a 50,000-square-foot, one-story building in Pasadena, California. Although the demise of the Internet boom has led people to question the mania behind so many start-ups, there's no denying Idealab's effectiveness in quickly creating new firms around new ideas. Idealab! has few walls, so that everyone is forced to run into everyone else. Bill Gross's office is in the center, with concentric circles around it. The innermost desks are for start-ups in the earliest phases, when new ideas and support from others are most crucial. As businesses grow, they move farther from the center. When they reach a critical mass of around seventy employees, as eToys and CarsDirect.com have done, they leave the incubator for their own buildings.

IDEO's studios are also laid out so that everyone sees and hears everyone else's design problems. Hang out for a while and you will see hundreds of unplanned interactions in which designers overhear nearby conversations, realize they could help, and stop whatever they are doing to make suggestions. One day engineers Larry Shubert and Roby Stancel were designing a device for an electric razor to vacuum up cut hair. They were meeting at a table in front of Rickson Sun's workstation. He soon shut his sliding door to muffle the noise from the meeting, but he could still hear them. He emerged a few minutes later to say he'd once worked on a similar design problem: a vacuum system for carrying away fumes from a hot scalpel that cauterized skin during surgery. Sun brought out samples of tubing that might be used in the new design and a report he had written about the kinds of plastic tubing available from vendors. The encounter shows how having the right attitude drives people to help each other solve problems. Larry Shubert commented, "Once Rickson realized he could help us, he had to do it, or he wouldn't be a good IDEO designer."

Putting promising concepts to the test
A good idea for a new product or business practice isn't worth much by itself. It needs to be turned into something that can be tested and, if successful, integrated into the rest of what a company does, makes, or sells. Quickly turning an imaginative idea into a real service, product, process, or business model is the final step in the brokering cycle. Real means concrete enough to be tested; quickly means early enough in the process that mistakes can be caught and improvements made. "The real measure of success," Edison said, "is the number of experiments that can be crowded into 24 hours."5

Technology brokers are not the only businesses that use prototypes, experiments, simulations, models, and pilot programs to test and refine ideas. The difference is that collecting and generating ideas, and testing them quickly, are more than just some of the things brokers do: They are the main things brokers do.

Brokers must be good at testing ideas, at judging them on merit without letting politics or precedent get in the way. A broker's attitude toward ideas is usually "Easy come, easy go." Brokers treat ideas as inexpensive and easily replaceable playthings that they are supposed to enjoy, understand, push to the limit, break, and change in ways the ideas' inventors never imagined. If an idea seems to solve a current problem, they build on it. If an idea doesn't work out, they look for another. Brokers rarely keep trying to make something work in the face of evidence that it won't. They focus on finding the best ideas for solving problems, not on solutions for which they can claim glory. We could call it the nothing-is-invented-here attitude. It means they reach out—early and often—to anyone who might help them solve problems and test ideas. Brokers view the more familiar "not invented here" syndrome—in which people, believing they know more than others in their field, reject all new ideas that are "not invented here"—as inefficient, arrogant, and ultimately fatal to innovation.

Almost immediately after thinking of a promising concept, a development team at a place such as IDEO or Design Continuum builds a prototype, shows it to users, tests it, and improves it. The team then repeats the sequence over and over. Prototypes can be anything from crude gadgets to elaborate mock-ups. IDEO designers in the Boston office built a full-size foam model of an Amtrak train to test ideas about seating, layout, and signage. To make more refined prototypes, IDEO's machine shop uses computerized milling machines and other sophisticated tools. IDEO's machinists can take a rough sketch and quickly turn it into a working model.

Putting a concept to the test not only helps determine if it has commercial value, but also teaches brokers lessons they might be able to use later, even when an idea is a complete flop. Brokers benefit from failures, because in learning about why an idea failed, they get hints about other problems the idea might solve someday. Recall Edison's efforts to design a new telegraph cable that would span the Atlantic Ocean. Their experience with carbon putty as a failed electrical insulation proved invaluable a few years later in another application, the inexpensive, effective, and reliable microphone that helped make the telephone commercially feasible.

Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business School Press. Excerpt from How Breakthroughs Happen: The Surprising Truth About How Companies Innovate. Copyright 2003 Andrew Hargadon; All rights reserved. To order, please call (800) 988-0886.

Andrew Hargadon is an assistant professor of technology management at the Graduate School of Management at the University of California, Davis.

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Footnotes

1. Andre Millard, Edison and The Business of Innovation (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990), 9.

2. Quote attributed to Thomas Edison, reprinted at Epcot Center, Florida.

3. Gian Zaccai, interview by author, 21 August 1996.

4. Millard, Edison and The Business of Innovation, 34-35.

5. Millard, Edison and The Business of Innovation, 40.